One of the great UCLA victories in the John Wooden era was a victory over … UCLA, coached by John Wooden.
It was Nov. 27, 1965, and the Bruin varsity—winner of 58 of its previous 60 games and coming off back-to-back national championships—was to play its freshman team.
Wooden, of course, coached the varsity. Gary Cunningham coached the freshmen, including a 7-foot-1-inch center. His name was Lew Alcindor. We came to know him later as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Alcindor dominated with 31 points and 21 rebounds. So did the freshmen, winning 75-60.
So why wasn’t Alcindor with the varsity?
Relative youngsters might not recall that the NCAA—with the exception of World War II—did not allow freshmen to compete in “varsity” competition. In 1968, it rescinded that rule for all sports except football and basketball. In 1972, it cleared the way for freshmen to play in all sports straight out of high school.
When it comes to the current state of Division I basketball with its high transfer rates, AAU influence and, worst of all, serving as nothing more than a seven-month stopover for youngsters on their way to the NBA with no intention of pursuing a degree, allowing freshmen to compete at the varsity level might have been when the toothpaste got squeezed out of the tube.
Difficult—and revolutionary—as it now might be, maybe it is time to try to squeeze it back in.
You see, this old fuddy-duddy longs for the time when those representing our colleges and universities were actually college students.
Now allow me to again point out that, throughout the NCAA’s three divisions and the more than 400,000 student-athletes it serves, the vast majority are—honest to gosh—student-athletes. And that includes freshmen, current and former.
I’ve written that in this space before. It’s a point I will continue to pound home because, well, it’s true. The NCAA’s most recent graduation rates showed again that athletes graduate in greater numbers than the general student population, even in football and men’s basketball.
The problem is, that perspective is rarely placed alongside the focus on the excesses, especially when the most notable of those excesses—the University of Kentucky men’s basketball program under Coach John Calipari—is contending for and winning national championships by recruiting the so-called “one-and-dones.”
As a reminder, it is the NBA—not the NCAA—that has the rule that prohibits players from joining the league unless they are 19 years old or have completed one year of college eligibility.
No one has exploited that rule more—or better—than Calipari, and while his perennially young Wildcats are struggling so far this season, he nonetheless has three freshmen who are projected to be among the top eight selections in next June’s NBA draft.
To be clear, many high-profile programs have had freshmen do their requisite brief stint in college, then bolt for the NBA. And by the way, Indiana University fans, don’t think that Yogi Farrell might not be feeling the tug next spring.
Still, in my view, the one-and-done has made a mockery of the term “student-athlete” and has allowed others to unfairly portray the NCAA as a participant— rather than a bystander—in the process.
The NCAA could solve that by reinstating freshman ineligibility for basketball (and should consider it for football, Texas A&M’s Heisman Trophy-winning Johnny Manziel notwithstanding).
The positives? It virtually eliminates one-and-dones. It strengthens the commitment between the university and the student-athlete, and vice versa. It allows time for proper academic, athletic and social adjustment. It eliminates the pressure to perform right away.
It likely decreases transfer rates. It re-emphasizes the primary, education-first role of college.
Yes, it would cost more to fund a freshman team playing a limited freshman schedule. Overall scholarship limits might have to be increased by a spot or two, though a freshman roster could be filled out with walk-ons.
Now, certainly, I would endorse adding a year of eligibility to the back end so students still would have four years to compete at the varsity level. In addition, that would provide student-athletes a valuable fifth year to earn their degree or possibly begin post-graduate work.
If the NBA won’t change its rule, the NCAA should act on its own. The one-and-done needs to be done away with. Let the young phenoms find another path to the NBA that doesn’t include temporary campus housing and a pretend commitment to academics.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.